A Lifetime of Civic Improvement: Honoring Libby Sharpe

Libby Sharpe

The Libby Sharpe Memorial Fund, established by Irwin Sharpe to honor his late wife, has made it possible for the League of Women Voters of New Jersey to continue doing the work that she valued most—training members to become leaders in the League; in the workplace; and in elected and appointed office.  The training materials she developed, and which were donated to LWVUS, were incorporated into the 2005 publication, “Citizens Building Communities: the ABC’s of Public Dialog.”

Libby Sharpe was brilliant, vivacious, hard working, and passionate about good government. When she spoke at a celebration of the League’s 75th birthday in 1995, at which she was honored for 50 years of community service, she described the League as “patient and tenacious.” She certainly was.

Libby age 17 or 18

Entering Hunter College at 14, she received a B.A. at 18, and earned an M.A. from the University of Chicago, studying sociology, political science, and economics.  Fresh out of school and attracted to the League by its role in changing the Federal Civil Service from a spoils system to one of merit appointments, she joined the Central Queens Branch of the League in 1944.

In the late 40’s she worked on local political reform in New York, helping expose the inefficiency and corruption of its yearly voter registration system. She was assigned to the Hell’s Kitchen area, where she investigated voter lists, finding that many names were listed as living in non-existent buildings or were people who had moved or died.

When she moved to West Orange in 1950, she immediately joined the League there where she held many positions, including the presidency, and remained active until her death. She worked as an educator and activist on many critical local issues. Among them was the form of West Orange’s government. The effort she and other League members began in 1957, first studying then advocating for a change from a Commission form to Mayor-Council form, was finally accomplished in 1968.

She also led the formation of the West Orange Campaign Ethics Committee and the establishment of a Code of Ethics that candidates for Council and the Mayoralty pledged (in front of a judge) to abide by, including campaign spending. This brought big changes in the tenor of local campaigns, which continues today.

She actively supported the United Nations and helped educate local citizens and political representatives in the 1950’s about the importance of international trade as a way to encourage global peace and help New Jersey develop.  She helped organize a League survey of 419 manufacturing firms in the 10th, 11th and 12th Congressional Districts to analyze the importance of foreign trade on jobs and growth in the State.

She also persuaded her League and PTA to join forces in raising money for UNICEF (the U.N. International Children’s Emergency Fund). They converted half pint milk containers in school cafeterias into collection boxes to help children in war-torn Europe, an effort that preceded the ubiquitous orange “Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF” boxes that many children around the country carried on Halloween for years.

After serving on the West Orange Citizens Charter Association during the effort to change the charter in the 60’s, Libby worked with the League to establish a town Department of Planning headed by a capable, certified professional planner.  She then served on the West Orange Citizens Advisory Committee and later on the Zoning Board of Adjustment from 1977-1985, working closely with the first town planners hired.

Libby worked as a marketing manager and as office administrator for the family’s consulting firm; and her involvement in the League and her community was a second, unpaid full-time job, her family being the first. She was a devoted wife to Irwin and raised four children—Kenneth, Bonnie, Peter, and Debbie—and eventually had four grandchildren. All were shaped by her involvement in civic affairs.

Libby leading a discussion group

Honored by the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, the town of West Orange (which declared a “Libby Sharpe Day”) and the New Jersey State Assembly in 1995, Libby was also commemorated by a resolution of the joint Senate and Assembly of the State of New Jersey when she died in 2003, for her more than half-century of public service through the League of Women Voters.

Libby rarely took the limelight in reform efforts.  She usually worked behind the scenes, working the telephones, mobilizing others, quietly convincing public officials of the soundness and decency of her arguments, and above all educating and training others to be leaders.  She often said that her proudest accomplishment was training women to be leaders in the League and watching them go on to hold elective and appointive public office and become leaders in other volunteer organizations and professions.

Libby’s lifetime of League and civic achievements serve as a model for all. Her selfless devotion to civic improvement encapsulates the best of the League of Women Voters and her memorial fund further extends her work for civil dialog and good government. The League is wholeheartedly grateful for both her service and the opportunity to continue her good work through this Fund.

Please consider visiting www.lwvnj.org or mailing a check to 204 West State Street, Trenton, NJ 08608 to give a gift honoring Libby or any other person who has contributed much to the work of the League.

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